Psalm 80:1-8, Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55
In today’s Gospel reading, we re-join the action that has taken place in Luke’s wonderful account of the nativity. There are a number of scenes that the writer of Luke sets out to bring home to us that the birth of Jesus was an event that is rooted very much in time and space.
For example, the angel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist and, of course, Gabriel’s visit to Mary. Both these events happen at a particular time to specific people. And so, although it was important for the writer of Luke to make sure we understood that the birth of the Messiah would happen in Israel amongst people who understood themselves to be God’s chosen people. It was also important to the writer of Luke for us to understand the intimate and personal aspects of this story.
For me, what is see in today’s reading is a story of relationship and of growth. The drama of the Gospel story is as evident in the Gospel passage that we have just heard as it is anywhere in Scripture.
To put today’s reading in context within Gospel itself, in the immediately preceding scene we had the touching moment when Gabriel visits Mary and announces to her that she will conceive and give birth to the Son of God. Mary, of course, does not understand how this is possible. But the angel explains and gives her as a sign the fact that her relative Elizabeth is pregnant. Mary then speaks her famous words of assent, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
At the same time, Mary’s relative, Elizabeth is also expecting a child. Elizabeth is of an older generation than Mary and she did not have any children up until that point. The culture of that time and place meant that this was a source of shame for Elizabeth. Therefore, her expecting a baby became a source of blessing.
And so, the scene is set for these two women to meet. On one hand, we have the young and scared Mary, whose trust in the Lord must have been strong but also must have been necessary just to allow her to make sense of what is happening to her. On the other hand, we have Elizabeth for whom her pregnancy is a blessing after what we can understand to have been years of pain that is both personal but also inflicted on her by the society around her.
Mary then sets out to visit her relative Elizabeth and we can ask ourselves what is Mary’s motivation here? Is she visiting Elizabeth out of a sense of duty, or is she seeking reassurance and confirmation? Some commentators would say that if we are to regard Mary as a perfect example of faithfulness then it can’t be right that she is seeking reassurance and confirmation by seeing Elizabeth pregnant. If she really is so trusting of God, then wouldn’t she just accept what is happening to her?
I have to say that I just can’t accept that. No matter how trusting and faithful Mary was, she’s only human after all. By telling us about her visit to Elizabeth, the writer of Luke is underlining not only the specific time and place of what is happening but also the very real humanity of Mary and those around her. So, what would Mary have been feeling at this moment? A young woman from an ordinary background, experiencing extraordinary things. No matter how strong her faith was, she must have been feeling scared and uncertain.
In terms of the drama that the writer of this Gospel story is showing us, we begin to see that it is the interaction between the characters, between Mary and Elizabeth, that leads to growth and change. By spending time with Elizabeth, Mary is transformed. She finds her inner strength and is able to say those most powerful words that we know as the Magnificat, which starts with: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my sprit rejoices in God my saviour…” In the Magnificat, she goes on to acknowledge the grace and love of God and through the words of the Magnificat she takes her rightful place in the history of our salvation through her son Jesus Christ.
But it is with this new-found power and strength that Mary’s most prophetic words are spoken. She paints a picture of what the Kingdom of God will look like. It is a place where there is mercy and justice, where the proud and powerful are cast down and where the humble and powerless are raised up.
In terms of character development this is quite a leap for Mary. From being an uncertain yet faithful young woman to being someone with a strong and commanding prophetic voice.
In my role in the vocations team in the Diocese, it is a privilege for me to be alongside people as they discern the fullness of what God is calling them to do and to be. And I think we see something of this here. We see Mary growing into the fullness of who God wants her to be. Not an empty vessel who carries Jesus for nine months – that is just an image of Mary that many who are squeamish about women’s lived experiences seem to adopt. But rather she grows into her God-given role as the mother of God as the mother of Jesus who is coming into this world as our Saviour. This role is one that is prophetic. It is one that changes the world and which points us to a better world, to the kingdom of her son.
As someone who is alongside people as they grow into the fullness of who they are, I have an affection for Elizabeth. Her own vulnerability, her faithfulness and also her own uncertainty about what is happening to her means that she is able to provide whatever it is that Mary needs to become her true self.
At Christmas time, when we contemplate the story of the nativity, we are given a rich cast of characters and often invited to identify ourselves with one of them. There is, of course, Mary and her trusting ‘Yes’ to God. But there is also the faithful and loving Joseph; the outcast and poor shepherds; and the rich and mysterious Magi. Each one of them offering worship and reverence to the baby in the manger. Yet, of the characters in the nativity story, we are not asked to contemplate Elizabeth or even to identify ourselves with her. Yet, doing so, I believe, gives us another example of Christian discipleship. What does it mean for you to be the person those who are vulnerable and scared, like Mary, to turn to? What does it mean for us to be alongside and to be a source of wisdom and experience so that someone can grow into the fullness of who they are?
I would suggest that the challenge of today’s Gospel is for you to ask yourself what would it mean for me to be more like Elizabeth?
Rev Raymond Baudon
Deputy Director of Vocations and Assistant Diocesan Director of Ordinands for the Diocese of Southwark